Never Felt Alone in Her Care
During a health crisis, we often call on our immediate family to reassure us that everything is going to be all right; that we will come to the other side of our pain and recover. However, unexpected surgery in a foreign country with potential language barriers, and immediate family members thousands of miles away, can be a vulnerable and terrifying experience.
Rocio Bradley, one of four children, left her large, extended family more than 20 years ago. But in all those years, there’d never been a moment the Mount Vernon resident didn’t long for her mom, her siblings and the close-knit family she’d known.
Originally thought to be an appendicitis, the excruciating pains she felt one day radiating from her right side led her directly to the emergency room at Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon. She was frightened and longed for the reassurance only her mother could provide. “When we get sick, that’s when we really miss our family the most,” Bradley said.
Living far from loved ones wasn’t a new concept to Bradley. As a youth, she traveled with “Conjunto Folklorico de Historial,” a folkloric dance group sponsored by the Department of Education in Mexico. She had the opportunity to travel every summer to different countries to perform Mexican folk dances. When a back injury ended her dance career, she decided to dedicate her dance knowledge to teaching children the art form. She became devoted to her young students and has been guiding their exploration of movement and culture ever since.
Having spent her childhood in Mexico City with a “family of teachers” and after living abroad in Belgium as a youth, she returned home to begin a Masters program at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City. After completion of her degree in economics, she received a scholarship to attend the University of California Berkeley and headed off again to begin a new life in California.
Soon after, she met her husband, John Bradley, a Washington native from Mount Vernon. They moved to Skagit County where she began teaching elementary students in the Mount Vernon School District and taught adult students English as a Second Language (ESL).
Years pass and life hums along until the unexpected happens. According to Rocio Bradley’s husband, John, he knew something was acutely wrong with his wife after receiving a call from the ER. “I remember getting that call and leaving work right away,” he said. What began as mysterious pains in her right side quickly landed her an admission to Skagit Valley Hospital, multiple scans, and an examination by OB-GYN Trisha Halvorsen, MD.
Dr. Halvorsen was able to detect an ovarian fibroid cyst and extensive scar tissue from a previous surgery and decided Bradley would need a hysterectomy.
With her strong accent, Bradley was nervous and concerned about how she’d be treated, understood and cared for. Dr. Halvorsen emphasized, “I do my best to establish clear communication with all my patients, whether they speak English or not, by noticing body language, speaking slowly, making eye contact and assessing for cues of comprehension.”
In Bradley’s case, her provider established open communication, making sure she understood her surgical and non-surgical options, while explaining her condition in terms she could relate to. “It’s always my goal that patients not only understand their diagnosis, but choose their plan of care so they establish ownership over their gynecological health,” Dr. Halvorsen said.
Her provider’s ability to amplify a human connection with her patient and minimize her fear helped Bradley feel comfortable in making a sound health decision while maintaining her dignity. Bradley said she felt her doctor stepped in to reassure her while the nurses and staff served as the surrogate relatives she yearned for. “The nurses were the family I didn’t have here,” she said.
Back at home, Bradley’s husband took leave from work for two weeks to care for his wife post-operatively. Although he was able to help her recover from her hysterectomy and provide comfort, he would still catch her staring listlessly out the window. When she reached out to her family in Mexico, Bradley hid the details of her illness and downplayed her loneliness. “I told them everything was fine, because what was the point in worrying my 83 year-old mother who couldn’t travel so far anyway?” she said.
The realization that her entire extended family were too far away to physically comfort her during her time of diagnosis and recovery amplified her feelings of isolation. With her husband of 20 years by her side, Rocio said she still felt a great sense of distance from her familial roots and longed for a maternal hand to comfort her.
From the moment she arrived in the ER, physical pain and isolation turned to relief. Dr. Halvorsen was able to assist Bradley with options for a healthy way forward. “And, when you find somebody who can ... hold your hand, and helps you to walk on difficult roads, that makes you feel stronger, and forget about the fear… That’s how the doctor made me feel,” Bradley said.
Several small acts of kindness also established Bradley’s lasting trust in Skagit Regional Health’s medical care. Having lived in other foreign countries, she didn’t know what to expect when being admitted to her local hospital. She soon discovered Skagit Regional Health to be a comfortable refuge unlike anything she’d experienced abroad. Before, during and after her procedure, Bradley was amazed by the attention and personalized care she received. At no time was speaking English as a second language a hurdle. Dr. Halvorsen and other staff members consistently spoke to her in a way she both understood and appreciated. She said she was relieved to feel calm in a healthcare environment where everyone was friendly and supportive. “These people; their hearts are in the right place. They aren’t here just for the salary, they’re here because they really want to help,” she said.
When providers go above and beyond expected care there’s room for greater healing. After coming out of anesthesia, Bradley felt dizzy, had a headache and her appetite had disappeared. One of the nurses brought food and when she said she couldn’t eat, he returned with Jell-O. When she finally got hungry again in the middle of the night, another nurse shared some of the crackers she’d brought for lunch and brought her 7 Up, gestures that reminded her of her own mother and what she would’ve done had she been there. “Every person there was willing to bring anything for me. It was like if I were with family,” she remembered. After the procedure, Bradley said, “I didn’t even need to cry, because there was no reason. I felt that I was among friends.”
After 20 years of teaching dance, ESL, technology and Mexican culture in Skagit Valley, Bradley now considers a second generation — the children of some of the first students she taught shortly after arriving in Mount Vernon — her community. Over the years, she’s found joy in connecting with her young students and seeing them grow. “I like to be with kids, I get dressed up for my kids [during celebrations], I play with my students, I love to see students learning,” she added.
To her great relief, she also discovered a sense of community, family and belonging with the care she received at Skagit Regional Health. Bradley concluded, “Having the doctor that made me feel comfortable and all these nurses, taking care of me like family, it was such a nice experience. It was not scary anymore, you know? I was lucky. I found a family where I needed them most.”